Celebrating great design across the Muslim world: winners range from a Singapore residential tower that keeps out monsoon rains to a hand-built rural Bangladesh school writes LISA ROCHON

LISA ROCHON Saturday, September 15 2007

"An entire past comes to dwell in a new house." Gaston Bachelard

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Architecture can produce strange and wondrous sensations. At night, Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, the world's tallest commercial skyscrapers, seem to liquefy against the skyline, dazzling the eye with the highest grade of stainless-steel cladding. They are convincing evidence of Malaysia's desire to be a world economic player.

In this case, architecture is manipulated by its maker, American architect Cesar Pelli, to resemble mountains of bling. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture - the world's most generous and rigorous prize for architecture - was presented last week within the dazzling confines of those Petronas Towers. The nine winning projects - from urban redevelopments to a hand-built rural schoolhouse - were selected from across the Muslim world for their relevance to site, local culture and the imprint of the human body.

In North America, where architecture is dominated by massive cultural institutions and soaring condominiums, it's difficult to fathom the importance of a small elementary school in northwest Bangladesh. The two-storey structure in Rudrapur that was honoured by an Aga Khan Award uses easily available materials - bamboo for structural trusses, mud reinforced by straw for walls. It was built by volunteer architects, local craftsmen, pupils, parents and teachers in four months at a cost of only $23,000. The walls are 1.6 metres thick - deep enough to carve small chambers where children can read or play.


Creativity runs like a river through this modest school (photo). Rather than endorsing traditional learning by rote, the school fosters education through skills development and understanding of village life. The day begins with an assembly in which students meditate on their goals, followed by the singing of Bangladeshi folk songs and the sharing of news, both global and personal. Prodip Tigga, the young headmaster, returned to his native Bangladesh to lead the school after studying computer science at the University of South Australia.

"We wanted to create a sense of magic and secret spaces," said Austrian architect Anna Heringer, who designed the school with Eike Roswag. Heringer supervised, among other things, the water buffalo and cattle recruited to mix the straw into the mud. "We tried to discover local materials, to strengthen the local identity," she said, "and to prove that it was not a school for anywhere, but something that was really linked to place."

The various winning projects were completed against significant odds at times, and often against long timelines. In Rada, Yemen, the 16th-century Amiriya mosque was meticulously restored in a 25-year-long initiative led by Iraqi archaeologist Selma Al-Radi. "I went there as a young girl, but I came out as an old lady," said Al-Radi. When she first arrived in Rada, the mosque was badly deteriorated and locals had taken to slapping cement over the walls and roof to prevent further cracking. Now, it's impossible not to be moved when looking at the rich tempera wall paintings that Al-Radi and her team of local craftsmen were able to uncover over the years.

Another project from Yemen, the rehabilitation of the 500-year old city of Shibam, known as the Manhattan of the desert for its tall mud buildings, received an Aga Khan Award, as did the rehabilitation of the walled city of Nicosia in Cyprus, an initiative requiring visionary co-operation from both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has been a member of the Aga Khan Architecture Award steering committee since 2004. The 2007 committee members included Swiss architect Jacques Herzog, Omar Akbar, the director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Germany, and American architect Billie Tsien. During a conference on the award-winning projects which followed the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Lowry recognized the extraordinary dedication of the winners and their work as "a real testament to courage.... You have created, from the small to the large, profound changes in the way communities think about their space."

The touch of the hand, the scale of the human body, architecture that enlivens all the senses - these were the fundamentals underpinning all of the winning projects. A central market in Burkina Faso, one of the world's poorest countries, was redesigned to strengthen the economic viability of the town of Koudougou. Laurent Séchaud, an architect for the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation and long-time resident of Burkina Faso, designed the monumental civic space with blocks of compressed earth, teaching locals to use available materials to create an inspired langue of vaults, domes and arches. About 1,200 vendors now gather in the market every day.


Also honoured was a small urban park by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic (photo) in what was previously a devastated section of Beirut. Two historic fichus trees appear to be floating within a reflecting pool. Samir Kassir Square is named for the prominent journalist and vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon who was assassinated in 2005.

The Royal Netherlands embassy in Addis Ababa, by Dutch architects Dick van Gameren and Bjarne Mastenbroek, presents as a muscular mass that emerges from the land. The University of Technology Petronas, a campus set within a Malaysian forested preserve designed by Foster + Partners and the Malaysian firm GDP Architects, also received an award, as did the Moulmein Rise residential tower in Singapore, with its innovative "monsoon window" that can screw open to allow natural ventilation while keeping out fierce rains.

The Aga Khan Awards are given every three years, with a prize fund of $500,000 to be distributed among the winning projects' architects and, in some cases, the clients. For the 2007 awards cycle, a total of 343 projects were nominated by local architects (and included a shopping mall in Montreal.) A jury of experts from around the world chose a short list of 27 contenders for onsite review by technical experts, and eventually nine projects were selected for recognition.

"For their complexity, the winners of the 2007 Aga Khan Architecture Award are all exemplary projects. Each and every one of them has shown us that, when given a chance, the human spirit is capable of transforming the world around us," said Toronto architect Brigitte Shim, one of the jury members, during the awards conference in Kuala Lumpur. "There is much to be learned from the built form of every winning project. But perhaps the most valuable lesson has to do with the way that architects have truly engaged the Muslim world and the local communities before they even start to design."

The Aga Khan Award was created 30 years ago by His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, a branch of Shia Muslims. About 15 million Ismailis are scattered through 25 countries, with about 80,000 living in Canada after being forced from countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The award was established to recognize contemporary architecture inspired in meaningful ways by place and history without relying on kitsch references to Islamic decorative arts or, indeed, colonial design.

"The award really has a fairly simple objective," the Aga Khan said during an informal speech delivered at the awards conference in Kuala Lumpur: "That the processes of change in the physical environment in the Islamic world, and elsewhere, enable people of all backgrounds and faiths to live a better life. I don't believe that the physical environment can be improved year after year unless we have the courage to bring to bear upon it a process of continuous critical thinking.

"In many parts of the umma [the collective nation of Islamic states] there are fears that critical thinking equates to disloyalty," he added. "I do not accept that. Critical thinking is part of the right of every human being."